How to ride sand

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Charles Oertel's picture
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Tried and Tested Sand Riding Advice

Before we embarked on our trip to Jurg se Kaya, Geoff sent us these sand-riding instructions from Simon Pavey - a well-known BMW off-road instructor and finisher of 8 Dakars.

The sand was the worst we have seen in many years, and some of us tried various of the techniques described in the section below. I will annotate with our experiences where relevant.


Presented-by-2.0To ride sand and survive without complete exhaustion and broken spirit requires practice and skill. Sand is the angry, spiteful cousin of all other types of earth. It can take your enjoyment and self confidence in it’s hands and utterly crush it. Si Pavey, 8 time Dakar finisher, has more experience than most in the soft sand. He tells us how it’s done.

Any guide on how to ride sand needs to start with a few items of advice. First up, sand is brutal. It’s physical, challenging and downright punishing toward mistakes. It will put you down time and time again. Sometimes you’ll have sand mastered and it’ll throw a big, sweeping curveball that’ll see you practicing your bike picking up skills. Riding sand on a big bike (Anything more than 140kg) amplifies this exponentially. It’s genuinely tough, but do not despair, it is entirely possible and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. On the flip side, once you master the sand you’ll never find a soil type more enjoyable to ride.  Riding sand well is about nailing the basics of motorcycle riding.

Standing Position

Being in a good standing position is imperative to making light work of the sand. If your body position is weak or off balance, you’ll have a tough time keeping up with the rapid direction changes of the bike. If you need a reference on obtaining a good, neutral standing position, click here.

Having your weight toward the rear transfers the weight balance away from the front wheel, helping prevent the sand from sucking the wheel in.

There are several areas of focus to make life easier in the sand. Everything starts with your lower legs. Legs are the primary point of contact with the bike, they’re strong and will physically last longer than your arms. Using legs effectively allows you to restrict unwanted movement and control the direction of the bike very efficiently.

The standing position starts with your feet. Tuck your toes in tight to the bike. Move your feet slightly back on the footpegs so the contact patch is between the arch and ball of the foot. Being completely on the balls isn’t necessary. Your lower legs can then grip the bike hard. This makes your riding far more precise in sand and reduces the chance of the bike wandering untowardly.

[ed: All of us who tried this found it to be life-transforming.  Instead of opening up our legs, we gripped the bike with our lower legs.  Bums over the pillion seat and reaching forward with loose hands  on the steering.

The effect was to stabilize the bike.  No more jumping from track to track and weaving in the sand - suddenly our bikes were on rails and we could control them with subtle movements of our bodies (bums) and legs.  It was like we had new bikes.]

Using your legs to clamp on allows you to shift your weight further back, whilst not straining with your arms too. Having your weight toward the rear transfers the weight balance away from the front wheel, helping prevent the sand from sucking the wheel in. Maintaining loose arms will allow you to still use the controls efficiently and counter unwanted front wheel movements whilst not wasting energy.  You can see in the three images in the gallery above that the neutral standing position has the head vertically over the handlebars. For the sand that position shifts backward. As you can see in the third image, balance is controlled by the lower legs, predominantly by squeezing the bike.

Like always with riding, looking in the direction you plan to go and observing hazards as early as possible makes things far easier. Keep your vision and head high. The importance of this is always underestimated.

The Pulling Away/Taking a Dab

The very nature of sand means mistakes will be made. You will go off line and are always at the mercy of the ground. Keeping yourself moving all the time is important to doing well in the sand. Being able to have a good, strong foot ‘dab’ to the ground and keep the bike moving is the basis to maintaining forward momentum. Doing this whilst moving requires good balance and a little physical strength in the leg still on the footpeg. You will need to learn to balance the bike and hold yourself in a good position with one leg. There are two great methods for developing this skill without being in sand.

Method One - Ride up to an object, say a tree stump or equivalent raised point. As you ride past, place your foot on it, pushing off again in one swift movement. Do this until you become comfortable with maintaining the balance of your bike and keeping yourself moving. This doesn’t have to be a fast exercise. Walking pace is more than enough.

Method Two - Learn to pull away stood up. Most of the time we sit down when pulling away, where we transition to standing once moving. When riding in sand and many other technical situations it’s lazy and limits your control of the bikes movements. It is incredibly challenging to develop momentum when sat down as you’re at the mercy of every direction change the sand causes.

The bike needs to be revving far higher than you’d normally do on the hard ground.

As you can see in the images, this starts by getting your bum off the seat prior to setting off. Your balance should be controlled by the leg on the floor. Start by positioning yourself in a stood up position, with one foot on the ground and the other on the footpeg. With the bike already in gear, push off with the foot on the ground and immediately pull away, making sure you stand tall on the bike immediately. Look to get your balance as quickly as possible and place your foot back on the footpeg. This skill should be learnt using both left and right feet on the ground.

When using this method to pull away in sand, the bike needs to be revving far higher than you’d normally do on the hard ground. This helps the bike to climb out of the sand. Once the bike is on top of the sand and you’re moving forward you don’t need to keep revving as hard. On bigger bikes, shifting up will help keep things manageable. Gear changes in the sand need to be fast and efficient. Any sloppy changes will see you loose speed and back at square one.

[ed: I tried this, but since I am short and my pins not very strong, I battled.  Michael also tried this and had more success.  That said, he is on a KTM, and is tall and strong.

For me, what doesn't work is standing up with both feet on the pegs and gassing it.  This is what the courses teach and it does not work for me.  The gassing causes fishtailing and I invariably lose my balance and have to take a few strong dabs before I am up and riding.

Typically, my pullaways involve a short distance of sitting and getting going a bit, then standing up while moving when I can.]

Getting the speed right

In sand, judging your speed correctly is the solution to staying upright. It’s a common mistake to ride too quickly. This causes the bike to be moving faster than your brain can process. Eventually you’ll roll off the gas as you can’t keep up with the bike and undoubtedly these two actions combine at the exact moment they really shouldn’t. Rolling off the gas results in weight transfer to the front wheel, thus the front wheel digs into the sand and the bike slows down rapidly, normally resulting in some lying down.

The key is choosing when to attack and when to roll off. You don’t need to arrive at technical, soft patches of sand going full throttle, it doesn’t work. Coming into soft sand patches a little slower and being able to maintain constant throttle speed helps to take weight off the front wheel, this is the most basic principle of riding sand.

Constant throttle doesn’t equate to going fast, you only ever want to go quickly enough to get through and allow your brain to deal with what is going on.

Remember constant throttle doesn’t equate to going fast, you only ever want to go quickly enough to get through and allow your brain to deal with what is going on. As you improve you’ll see things faster and can pick the speed up then.

Keeping you speed under control also allows you to choose your line more carefully. Take the time to assess the land in front of you. Line choice can be the difference between getting stuck and feeling like a legend. As a general rule, sand that hasn’t been ridden on or driven over is far easier to ride on.

[ed: If you find yourself going too fast, just pull in the clutch.  The bike will immediately settle down and slow down controllably.

The key is constant speed.  Several times I was struggling, and coming up to a stopped rider.  By focussing on just keeping a constant (albeit slow) speed, I was able to ride past without risk and without falling.

By keeping your speed "as fast as necessary, but as slow as possible" you give yourself the leeway to accelerate slightly in the softer patches when necessary.]

Body Movement

Having fast, quick movement on the bike is also very important to effective sand riding. As we said in the standing position segment, having your legs close to the bike and gripping with them is very important. It stops the bike moving around in the sand dramatically, however it doesn’t remove the possibility of it happening entirely.

The bikes willingness to change balance constantly in the sand requires you, the rider, to respond quickly by counter balancing the desire of the bike to fall to one side. This movement must be exaggerated, especially on a big bike. Quick counter movements, as you can see in the images above, stop the bike falling sideways and allow you took keep moving. This movement comes predominantly from your upper body.

This isn’t a complete fail safe however, you will still make mistakes. When that happens you need the aforementioned strong dab to keep yourself upright and moving forward.

[ed: Sand riding is the combination of all your off-road riding skills.  You need to be responsive and active on the bike to keep it under control - like riding a dirtbike in a rocky river bed.  There is no "one position" for riding sand.  It is all the positions and none of them, and your body needs to move instinctively with no time to think.  This means that any off-road riding in rugged terrain is practice for sand-riding.]

Getting Unstuck

No matter how good you are in sand you will get stuck. On a big bike this is going to be even more likely. There is no way to avoid it. When you realise you’re digging a hole, it’s important you don’t tunnel yourself down too far.

Stop the bike and lie it completely over. To make this easier use the leverage of the handlebars. Turn the front wheel toward the direction you want to lie the bike over and push toward the ground. Once the bike is lying down, the hole under the back wheel should mostly fill itself in. This works with dry sand very well and shouldn’t require you to do any additional work. If the sand is wet, you may need to kick a little back under the wheel.

In the wilds of adventure travel attempting to master new skills is not always the best idea.

Pick the bike back up. To pull away from this situation requires a large amount of physical effort. Pulling away as normal will dig the hole again. First or second gear can be used. It’s personal choice and bike specific. On the R 1200 GS in the images we used second. Start with both feet on the ground. When you decide to go, push hard with your arms and legs, making sure you run with the bike until it climbs out of the sand and you can return to standing up.

The pulling away technique is different to normal riding.  Aggression is important in helping the bike claw it’s way out. With your gear selected and body ready to push, set the revs nice and high, at least half throttle. Then feed the clutch out quickly and smoothly. Don’t merely let go of the clutch, be smooth or you’ll stall. As you feed the clutch out, turn the throttle even further and push harder than you’ve ever pushed. The short burst of effort will get you out of the hole and on top of the sand where you can calm things down again.

[ed:  I cannot do this.  My pins are too weak and my bike too heavy.  This is what I do:

  1. Stand straddling the bike (both feet on the ground).
  2. Pull the bike back a bit, then gas a little bit while pushing it forward a bit.
  3. Just as the front wheel is climbing out, pull in the clutch and pull the bike back again.  Repeat this rocking back and forth until you have enough momentum to keep going  forward.
  4. The key is to be aggressive and firm.]

Muscling through

In the wilds of adventure travel attempting to master new skills is not always the best idea. There are parts of the world where getting injured is a nightmare and just sometimes being unskilful and bullish is okay.

Sitting down, plodding along and staying upright is a perfectly acceptable way to tackle sand. Much like everything else in sand, keeping the bike moving and paddling your legs with it is key. It’s physical, you’ll do some heavy breathing, but not keeping the bike moving is far, far harder. If you’re lazy and don’t keep your feet moving you’ll spend a lot of time straining to hold a stationary bike upright, or picking it up.

 You’ll learn that sand can make you feel like a hero.

Keeping the bike revving a little higher still helps with this too. You’ll sit higher in the sand and will be able to muscle through small patches. In extended areas of sand this is an energy sapping method of riding and getting up on the pegs is a far better option.

What ever way you choose to tackle it, be smart. If you’re starting to get a little tired and still have km’s left then stopping in a sensible place, maybe on top of a rise so it’s easy to get going again, is a really good idea. Don’t let your heart rate get too high as you’ll only make more mistakes and waste even more energy.

Enjoy the spoils

Once sand riding is vaguely settled within your repertoire of riding skills you will quickly start to enjoy it. It’s without doubt one of the most rewarding surfaces to ride on. Sand skills don’t happen in the first half hour. It needs time to learn. Finding a small area to practice in is great but if you don’t have sand, riding ruts is a very similar core skill set.

Over time you’ll learn that sand can make you feel like a hero and let you ride a host of new places you wouldn’t have dreamed of before. Sandy forest, dunes and open beach are some of the most adrenaline filled, enjoyable environments that often hide stunning gems.

After a tough few hours riding sand, what could be better than doing skids on a 10km long empty beach with incredible views all around?

[ed:  The above article courtesy of  Off Road Skills.]


Klap that Sand Faerie!

Here is my suggestion for a buildup to becoming confident and competent in sand:

  1. Attend club training at Anura.  A few times until you are comfortable at the advanced level.
  2. Do many off-road rides - starting with the easier ones and moving up to the the more technical ones.
  3. Attend the club's "Sand Faeries" day at Atlantis where you will learn to ride dunes.
  4. Attend a Country Trax one-day "Intro to Offroad" course.
  5. When you are fit enough, do the Country Trax "Intermediate Weekend" course.  This course typically has a few hours of sand riding in it, with instruction by experts.  Also the weekend is quite physical, and you need  to build up to it in terms of experience and fitness.
  6. Now you are ready to ride sand, and perhaps you should join Geoff on a trip to Jurg se Kaya to get some sand kilometers under the belt.
  7. Now you are ready for the cherry:  the "Advanced Sand Riding" course.   The objective of this course is for you to leave not only able to ride side, but wanting to ride sand.

Just remember:  sand riding can be brutal if you don't know what you are doing.  Please hou kop and approach it bit by bit.

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

stevee's picture
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Joined: 2014/06/05

Great article Charles...cannot wait to get my new machine and start getting to know her and her character in this scenario.laugh

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